As Halloween approaches, the burning question must be asked: is Worcester Cathedral haunted by a bear?

The remarkable legend has its origins way back in the days of the English Civil War and, most likely, around the time of the Battle of Worcester, of September 1651. This means that the spectral bear - assuming it still lumbers around College Green, where it was first reported, is by now a rather ancient bear. Indeed, it is not only ancient but apparently lacking a head.

But how on earth did this unusual, grisly legend arise? It is certainly a haunting which has made it into various books and onto a number of contemporary web-sites, as an enduring claim.

For instance, the online site, Paranormal Database, under a listing for Worcester Cathedral and College Green claims: "Ever since the Civil War there have been reports of a phantom bear that rises up as if to attack.

"One guard is said to have taken a shot at the creature, which of course had no effect."

The story is also in books, including in "Animals and Animal Symbols in World Culture", by Dean Miller and in "Superstition and Folk Remedies" by Charles Raymond Dillon.

However, the full original account - dating back to the 17th century, is provided by Gillian Bennett in her book, "100 Best British Ghost Stories".

She quotes in full from a book of 1691: Richard Baxter's "The Certainty of the World of Spirits"; and Baxter not only named the man who apparently saw the phantom bear of Worcester Cathedral, but he claimed to have known him personally.

Baxter wrote: "Simon Jones, a strong and healthful man of Kederminster (Kidderminster), in no way inclined to melancholy or any fancies, hath oft told me thyat being a souldier for the King in the war against The Parliament, in a clear moonshine night, as he stood sentinel in the College Green at Worcester, something like a headless bear appeared to him and so effrighted him, that he laid down his arms soon after and lived honestly, religiously and without blame."

The account was printed some forty years after the alleged sighting of the spirit bear, which should sound a note of caution; but there are indications that Jones may have given a fairly accurate account to Baxter. A perusal of full moon records for 1651 reveals there was a full moon on August 30 - just days before the Battle of Worcester, and the ghost is said to have appeared "in a clear moonshine night".

Jones said he was a Royalist soldier; but were the troops of Charles II already in Worcester at that time? The answer is yes. Records show the Royalists were in Worcester by August 22. However, this begs another question, why was Jones on sentry duty in College Green?

The answer is, most probably he was protecting Royalist cavalry horses stabled in the cloisters. We know that the victorious Parliamentarians, after the Battle of Worcester, did indeed use the cloisters for that very purpose. For instance, the writer Candice Pearson in her study: "Living in its Shadow - Worcester Cathedral and Ellen Wood's The Channing" said: "During the Civil War, Parliamentary Dragoons housed troops and their horses in the cloisters."

Clearly this was after the battle, when there would have been bodies too. Another writer, Habington, in his 1723 book "Survey of Worcestershire" said the Battle of Worcester "left the cloisters strewn with corpses".

But the soldier who exited, pursued by a (phantom) bear, was certainly not among the dead. Jones told Baxter that, after seeing the headless bear, he "laid down his arms soon after". The sub-text here, surely, is that Jones deserted his post?

Did Jones invent the story of the ghost bear as an excuse for his desertion? It remains a possibility, unless other convincing accounts of the hairy spectre come to light.

But assuming that Jones was telling the truth, and given that every ghost bear must have been alive at some time, what on earth was a bear doing on College Green in Worcester? The speculation must be that the bear was a victim of bear-baiting, which was a popular 'sport' in the 17th century and earlier.

The bear would not have been native to the British Isles by then. Naturalists agree that the brown bear went extinct in Britain just over 1,000 years ago. In the 17th century, bears would have been imported.

Accidents, naturally, happened.

For instance, in the 16th century, according to a coroner's record, a certain Agnes Owen from Herefordshire was killed in her bed by a runaway bear; which must have been a rude awakening.